Will the LCK Bounce Back and Dominate in 2019?
With China winning both the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational and the League of Legends World Championship, many are focused on our new “overlords” who have dominated throughout the past year with incredible ease. Even though the LCK (League of Legends Champions Korea) failed to win even a single international tournament in 2018, it’s still too early to consider them inferior to the Chinese LPL (Tencent League of Legends Pro League). We’re just three weeks into 2019, and the biggest question on everyone’s mind is — will the LCK bounce back?
2018 was a shocking year for competitive League of Legends. The Korean League esport dynasty crumbled, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Not in the slightest. Korea was synonymous with top-tier competitive League of Legends. That’s just the way things were, and there was no questioning it.
Metas shifted, players came and went, but the only constant throughout the many years of international play was LCK’s strength. Strength unparalleled across the globe, paired with their unrelenting and unwavering will.
We all got used to their dominance. They were never cruel leaders and champions, but rather exemplars of stoicism and humility in victory, no matter how dominant. They always shook the hands of players they demolished mere minutes prior, and they always seemed happy to be participating, regardless of the outcome. It was a narrative we’ve all become accustomed to. There was no questioning it. The sheer notion of someone else lifting the Summoner’s Cup was a clear drift into the realm of fiction.
If you feel like this is overly dramatic, you’re correct. But if you were a regular viewer, someone who watched competitive League every week, these were shocking scenes. There were many signs warning us of what would happen, but no one believed them. After all, Korea always found a way to bounce back, to reclaim what was “rightfully theirs.” They were rarely perfect in their execution, but when push came to shove, they always clutched things out. They slacked when they knew they could and dominated when there was no other alternative.
That was the LCK way.
This air of invincibility spawned many fans across the globe, fans that fell in love with the highest level of play. The clean macro, the versatility, and their ability to adapt on the fly and find a solution to any problem, regardless of its complexity were all draws of the LCK. Pair that with mechanical prowess and mind-blowing coordination and you have something special. Other regions sometimes came close, but these were virtues you could only see in their purest form when the best LCK teams played.
But 2018 came, and things completely changed.
The LCK did not have a representative in the Worlds semi-finals. That’s pretty much a scandal if there ever was one in competitive League. They were losing game after game, and even though no one dared to question their inevitable triumph, people were getting nervous.
Nervous until there were no Korean teams left competing, that is. Then we were all in uncharted lands. For the first time since Season Two, a non-Korean team was to lift the most prestigious trophy in competitive League.
Korea was sitting on the sidelines, probably shocked as much as everyone else at what had transpired.
But when the dust settled, and Invictus Gaming received their gleaming medals, every team got back to work — Korea included.
Will the LCK bounce back after such a lackluster year, or is the era of Korean dominance finally over? Let’s take a closer look at the series of events that led to Korea’s eventual downfall, and whether they have what it takes to get back to the top.
Before we delve deeper into the LCK’s chances of reclaiming their recently lost throne, let’s focus a bit on why they lost it in the first place.
A very specific meta defined 2018. We witnessed a meta which allowed for immense champion diversity, and most teams relished the opportunity to explore and experiment. Once mages were the go-to pick in the bottom lane, we saw junglers taking supports like Braum and funneling all of their gold into their mid laner, and the list goes on and on.
In short, we saw absolute insanity on all fronts.
But for the people watching at home, these were exciting times. To those who were playing professionally, however, this kind of meta was infuriating and incredibly stressful, seeing how they had to adapt to a virtually endless number of possibilities.
Furthermore, with various changes to the game itself, the average game time between the Spring Split and Summer Split was shortened by a considerable amount. This meant teams favored early game skirmishing and objective control rather than duking it out after fifty minutes have passed, and everyone completed their builds.
The teams that knew how to fight early and often were the ones who came out on top, and who better at unfiltered aggression than the Chinese LPL? The average Season Eight team comp mostly revolved around a couple of early game picks, and a single late game “insurance” pick, a champion or two that could still clutch a win if things went to the late game. That way, teams would have all fronts “covered.”
The LCK, on the other hand, still thought their macro-oriented playstyle would prevail. After they fell short at the Mid-Season Invitational, they started adapting as well, but not as quickly as they had to.
Even at Worlds, you could still see glimpses of the classic “LCK play style.” While every other region was finding success with new strategies, Korean teams were still unsure of the right course of action. The LCK adapted as best they could, but while they were theorizing the optimal strategy, other regions were already mastering it.
They chose to play a different game, believing their way of doing things would eventually prevail. They were too stubborn and overly confident to a certain extent, and it’s hard to blame them. When you’ve spent so much time at the top, it’s easy to become complacent.
As the adage goes, reaching the top is easy, staying there is hard. 2018 put the LCK in undiscovered and unexplored lands — playing second-fiddle. It’s an unenvious position to be in, and they had zero experience being the second or third-best region in the world.
This could be the best thing that could have happened to them, or the worst, depending on how they handle it. Some players and teams react well to losing; as well as one can, at least. They go back to the drawing board, they analyze their mistakes, fix their issues, and get back to the climb.
Other simply fade into obscurity.
Korea has the right coaching staff, the right approach to practice and scrimming, and some of the most talented players on the planet, so they should be good. Fortunately, even if the “old guard” lost its fire, there are always “new kids on the block” just waiting to get their chance.
Which leads us to another key point.
The Next Breed of LCK Royalty
2018 gave us our first glimpse at the next generation of LCK talent. Young new rookies eager to prove themselves took the LCK by storm, and the most successful of the bunch was surely Griffin.
While the veterans prevailed in the end through sheer experience and better (more cohesive) team play, the LCK rookies made a statement. In fact, that might be an understatement.
Griffin came out of thin air, and the way they played shocked everyone in attendance. Led by the incredible Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong and Park “Viper” Do-hyeon, Griffin quickly rose to the top of the standings. Their players had no experience playing on the big stage — three-fifths of their roster never played for another team, whereas the other two did but failed to find success. The fact that they were able to finish the summer split regular season in second place with an incredible 13-5 record is absolutely astonishing.
That was their inaugural LCK split. Imagine what they could’ve accomplished if they had just a bit more time.
Other teams gave rookies a chance as well, and it paid off more often than not. Perhaps the biggest example of that was Afreeca Freecs’ Kim “Kiin” Gi-in, who was quickly recognized as one of the best top laners in the world.
Coming into 2019, however, most teams are undergoing some serious rejuvenation. That includes the perennial LCK titans SKT T1 who will be fielding two highly-feared players in Park “Teddy” Jin-seong and Kim “Clid” Tae-min. While both players have competitive experience, they were often forced to 1v9 on an inferior team (especially true in Teddy’s case).
SKT essentially took the Cloud9 approach. Pairing them with veterans like Kim “Khan” Dong-ha, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, andCho “Mata” Se-hyeong will provide them with ample guidance and room to grow.
DAMWON Gaming is also entering the fray, and after seeing them play at the recent KeSpa Cup, it’s hard not to get excited.
Bringing in young, mechanically gifted players will also broaden LCK’s arsenal, making them much more dangerous on the international stage.
But gifted players are just one part of the equation. The second half is preparation.
Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better
The fact that Korea has been able to dominate for so long is no coincidence. According to various League analysts, coaches, players, and basically anyone involved with the scene, the average LCK team takes every element of competitive play to its extreme. That goes for practicing, scrimming other teams, watching and analyzing VODs, coming up with unique strategies, solo queue — you name it.
When you compare that approach to the more relaxed “chilled” attitude of Europe and North America, you can begin to see stark differences.
This kind of training regimen allowed them to adapt without skipping a beat. If there was ever a region that had the chance to bounce back after such a crushing year, it has to be Korea. Their inventiveness, mental fortitude, resilience, and desire to fight and improve in all aspects of competitive play are second to none.
This fall from grace is the best thing that could have happened to Korea. It is but a small obstacle in the road ahead, and a negligible blunder in their otherwise incredible and storied history. This will spawn the best storylines and make competitive League that much more exciting and exhilarating.
After many years of absolute dominance, it was no longer a matter of “who will win” but rather “how will Korea pull it off this time?” and that made everything feel stale. The fact that we were still witnessing some insane top-tier play didn’t matter — we all knew the destination, and the journey wasn’t particularly entertaining.
Because of their year-long snafu, we’re primed to get some of the most exciting narratives in competitive League’s history. The LCK, as a whole, is angry. They want redemption, and their recent downfall will only elevate their upcoming resurgence.
In short, will LCK bounce back after a disappointing 2018? Absolutely.
If you’re a fan of top-tier competitive League of Legends, things simply cannot get more exciting.